The world lost a hero, the HIV community lost a leader, the Black HIV community lost a giant and many of us lost a mentor, a father figure and a friend with the passing of Dr. Beny Primm. I don’t know how or if we can comprehend what a huge hole the passing of Beny Primm has left. Whenever I think about leadership and progress and movement toward a more inclusive and effective response to the HIV epidemic in Black communities, I think about Beny Primm.
I remember the first time I met Beny; it was in a room full of Black women, gay men, and Beny. Beny was the only straight man in the room that day. For a young Black gay man to see this distinguished older Black male figure was a little intimidating. At a time when HIV was really a “Gay” disease, I couldn’t figure out why he was there or what he thought of us. Beny taught me then—and continued to teach me over the next 30 years—about power, security, sincerity and love. He just intuitively understood what surprisingly takes so many people so long to get—and that was we all matter. We all deserve dignity and respect.
Beny understood and he taught us that our individual worth is, in fact, inextricably connected to how much we value others. I never saw or heard Beny disparage anyone, even when he did not necessarily understand. He didn’t need to understand what it was like to be a Black gay man because he knew that our humanity mattered. He didn’t need to understand that it was important to be inclusive of transgender women, because he grasped the humanity of all transgender people. He understood that we could not make any progress whatsoever in fighting HIV without mastering that basic concept. He didn’t need to understand every issue in order to be compassionate and empathetic towards people, and when it came to issues that he didn’t understand, he was willing to study and learn about them so that he could have honest conversations with the people who were impacted.
Another mark of Beny’s leadership was his willingness to change once he understood a topic differently. Here’s a case in point: Beny was initially opposed to needle-exchange programs. He originally bought into the thought that providing needles to addicts would exacerbate the drug problem in Black communities. Quite frankly, given his field of expertise—substance abuse in an era when the conventional wisdom was that making it easier for people to use drugs was anathema—his initial perspective actually made sense. But in typical Beny style, he became a student of the topic. When he looked at the data and discovered that needle-exchange programs, when properly implemented, did, in fact, reduce HIV infections and did not increase drug use, he became a strong proponent.
There are so many reasons why my heart is broken today as we grieve the loss of Beny. I will miss him. I could talk about all the contributions he made to this movement forever. But the thing that I will miss the most is that every time I saw him, every time I spoke to him and every time I thought about him, just knowing that he was there, made me feel safe and made me know that everything was going to be okay. Beny wouldn’t have it any other way.
Farewell and God speed, beloved one.
In Lieu of Flowers the family has asked that donations be made to:
Mentoring In Medicine, Inc. 177a East Main Street #294 New Rochelle, NY 10801
Scholarships in Dr. Primm’s name will be awarded to African American male medical students, who are academic achievers, active in their communities, and working to increase health literacy and involvement of minorities in health careers. Please give generously. •